On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) struck down the use of race-based affirmative action in college admissions across the nation in a 6-3 vote. The court’s conservative majority was in consensus over ending affirmative action; the views of Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett corroborated Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion that race-based affirmative action creates discriminatory practices. Conversely, the justices who voted to uphold affirmative action were Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson.
Harvard College and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were the face cases for the ruling. Roberts cited the equal protection clause in his opinion, claiming that race-based affirmative action can result in negative outcomes that are in line with racial discrimination and stereotyping. On the other hand, in her dissent, Sotomayor argued that removing race-conscious admissions policies would further perpetuate racial inequality in higher education. Public opinion on the case of race-based affirmative action being employed in college admissions varies. According to a survey published by the Pew Research Center in 2023, 50% of Americans disapproved of selective colleges utilizing race and ethnicity in admissions decisions, whereas 33% approved and 16% were unsure of their stance. Those who identified as Democrats were more likely to be in favor of race-based affirmative action than their Republican counterparts. More details on this poll and its methodology are available on www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2023/06/16/americans-and-affirmative-action-how-the-public-sees-the-consideration-of-race-in-college-admissions-hiring/.
The SCOTUS ruling will have prodigious impacts on both public and private higher education institutions across the nation, and Tech’s case will be no different. To learn more about the Institute’s admissions practices and how this ruling will alter admissions strategies, the Technique had the opportunity to interview Rick Clark, the Assistant Vice Provost and Executive Director of Undergraduate Admission. When asked about how Tech employs race-based affirmative action in its admissions processes, Clark spoke of how the popularized SCOTUS ruling had created an ideology that conflated race-conscious decisions with race-based
“One of the things I think that affirmative action implies, is, you know, this idea that we have quotas, or spots held or that there was like major weight given to race where students who might not have otherwise deserve to be here were being admitted. And I can say, I can tell you with 100%, transparency and honesty, every student we admit to Georgia Tech is eminently qualified to be here,” said Clark.
He also mentioned the complexities within the admissions process, especially concerning the mountains of applications received by the admissions office each year. Just last year, 52,354 students applied as hopeful Jackets, with a goal class size of just 3,750 first-year students. Not to mention, the admissions office is also responsible for accounting for the nuances behind in-state, out-of-state and international application numbers in an already limited class size.
“The reality is, the supply and demand equation is not working out. Like we have so much demand for so few spots. And that’s what holistic review and holistic admission is. And I also think that’s part of what is hard to understand, and I get it, it’s super gray. And it’s very hard to explain because we don’t just put kids on an Excel spreadsheet and draw a line. Even if you quantify things purely by numbers, it is not fair. So, I guess my biggest point here is that affirmative action has never really existed in college admission, race conscious admission has been the precedent of the court,” Clark said.
The SCOTUS ruling against race-based affirmative action will directly impact Tech due to its positioning as a public institution. The Institute’s undergraduate admission application can be found on Common App, a free college application tool students use to apply to multiple colleges and universities using a single system. In this application, there is a demographics section where students typically indicate their racial identity. In light of the new ruling, students will still answer questions about their race on the application for data collection purposes, but that information will be redacted from admissions committees during the application review period. However, Clark emphasized that while race-conscious decisions have been part of the conventional fabric of admissions at Tech, a student’s race does not ultimately govern whether they will receive admission to the Institute.
“Through the vast majority of the admission process, a student is either admitted or denied, effectively independent of or without race being part of the conversation. And the delineations between students are relatively slight that it’s never like, just because you are a certain race or a certain major, you’ll be admitted or denied. It’s because we might have 50 spots left. And we still have 5000 kids to decide between, and we’re looking for something that’s going to help us to come to the end of the process. We call that shaping the class and looking at institutional priorities, that Georgia Tech is a place where we want students who are from lots of different backgrounds,” said Clark.
As to how the Institute will retain a diverse student body in light of the implementation of a race-blind admissions strategy, Clark spoke of the relevance of campus buy-in for a robust, diverse class.He also explained that while Tech employed race-conscious policies in the past, it is not how they ensured that the student body would come from diverse racial and
“[The SCOTUS ruling] doesn’t mean we will go from X amount of diversity to zero. I think what we need is students who say, what we have here in terms of diversity is invaluable. And this is where I I think that Harvard and UNC could have done a better job bringing in alums to talk, so they could have spoken to the educational benefit of diversity in a way that lawyers simply could not.”
Similarly, Clark emphasized the reality that the mission of the Institute drives its admissions practices. He also spoke of the importance of context when interpreting how admissions operate. With Tech’s positioning as a specialized public institution, its applicant pool and mission is vastly different from that of a private liberal arts college. On top of that, acceptance rates for out-of-state and international students are different from those for in-state students, and geography greatly impacts the percentage composition of the class.
“I’ve always said there are no admission problems. There are community problems, you know, and there are also no admission solutions, like there are community solutions and if we’re going to really continue to live out our mission as an institution and supply diverse talent. We have to make sure the top of our funnel who’s applying does not get truncated. And so I think now more than ever, we’re going to need a campus wide investment in making sure that qualified kids from all backgrounds are applying here. And I feel very confident in our staff in our holistic review in our recruitment. But if we’ve got a narrative problem at the top that says, you know, you’ve only been admitted because of one singular factor, then we’re going to have groups of kids stop applying which will become a huge issue,” Clark said.
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson institutionalized affirmative action into college admissions practices. In 2023, SCOTUS effectively erased the weight of a student’s racial identity in college admissions. With an ever-shifting political climate, only time will tell how this ruling will shape class composition across college in the U.S. in the coming years.